Somewhere Pretty

I'm starting to get irritated with Frank's. Because it won't stop being burned down.

Frank's is the heating and air conditioning place. Frank's people come here to sweep the chimney. Service the swamp cooler. Etc. Once a Frank's guy sold me some wood. It was good stuff. I burned it nights, during the maroonment. Kept us all here from becoming icicles.

When the PG&E guys returned the gas, they advised not firing up the gas wall heater, as, from age and wear, there had developed a crack in the chamber, which would pump out carbon monoxide, whenever it whooshed on. That explained why, before the fire, the carbon monoxide alarm would sometimes go off. But not for long. So I ignored it. Now, though, I decided I didn't want to become the guy who survived the fire, only to carbon monoxide himself. So I called the owner, Art, told him of this latest manifestation of the Second Law Of Thermodyanics, and he and I agreed we would call Frank's. They would repair it. But then we remembered Frank's burned. There is no Frank's. Not any more.

Frank's is right around the corner from here, and right across from the Paradise Transit Center—which is a fancy name for an iron bench set in a little glass half-enclosure. Whenever I go to this Center, there to catch the bus, I look at Frank's. It's look or go blind. Because it's right across the street. And, of late, besides looking at Frank's, I talk to Frank's.

"Still lookin' pretty burned there, Frank's," I say. "Burned as you were yesterday. And the day before that. Could you maybe try to be less burned? I don't like you being burned. I know you don't like it. So. Whaddaya say? Give it a try. Try. Try to be less burned."

I understand it's probably not normal, talking to rubble, but so what? The whole town burning down isn't normal either. And I mean, who's going to hear me? All the houses but one there on Almond, from Birch all the way down to Elliott, are burned; nobody lives on that street now, nobody at all. And, since the fire, I haven't encountered a single soul, there at that bus stop, waiting, as I wait, for the bus. Before the fire, generally there'd be people there. I remember that sometimes they'd want to talk to me. And sometimes I wouldn't want to. Well, I take that back. Now. Come on down, people. Let's talk. Somebody. Anybody. Something. Anything.

I'm not really sure what it is I want Frank's to do, in order to be less burned. Because I know that when burnedness gets changed, I don't like that either. There's a burned lot over by the Stop And Shop, and I got used to its burnedness, the way it looked, and then one day I saw that all the burned had been pushed into one big ugly towering pile. I didn't like that. It made me feel sick. And I guess next, that ugly towering pile of burned, it will be hauled away. And then, there, there will be . . . nothing. And I won't like that either.

I'm not going to like much of any of it, until the day I go out there and there isn't any burned. Because there was never a fire. Or there was a fire, but it remained within the bounds of reason—not this wild firestorming Dresden thing that took the whole town. I know now that's what I secretly, subconsciously, expected to happen. And I'm not the only one. A lot of us thought one day we'd awake, and we'd be out of this Mordor, and back again in Kansas. With Aunie Em and Uncle Henry. Hunk and Zeke and Hickory. The hogs and the dogs. Even Mrs. Gulch. And none of them would be burned. But that's not happening. We know now. That's not happening, ever. The fire, is final.

Sometimes I can't take the non-fire people. I can't meter my response. Somebody queried, a while back, "so, it's all back to normal up there now?"

"Sure!" I replied. "All the houses have sprung back up, everywhere they're standing, and all the cremated remains have formed again into people, and they're up and walking around and talking and laughing and happy!" Long silence, on the other end of the line. Maybe I'll get fired, I thought. I didn't care. What a cruelty. Is everything back to normal up here.

Of course, I myself lived for a time in an illusion that everything would soon be back to normal. During the maroonment, when it was just me up here, me and all those thousands of workers, expending all that fantastic energy to bring the town back, we all lived in this great bubble of hopefulness, me and them, that once the infrastructure was back, the town would magically come back to life. When once those workers were done, and the town reopened, the people would stream back in, and there would be dancing in the streets, and everyone would live Capra-ly ever after. There was a real closeness, an intimacy, up here then, though most all those people were not from Paradise, had never before been here, but they all had Paradise in their hearts, they hurt for it, and they wanted to make it alive again. I remember the police officer, the one who brought me chorizo and eggs for breakfast one Sunday, saying that although he'd lost everything, it would take him years to rebuild, the fire had also burned through all the barriers between cop and citizen, and he liked that, the mutual wariness was gone, he looked forward to being part of a smaller police force, in a smaller town, but this time actually part of the community, woven all through it, rather than set off from it. That was the sort of dreamtime we were in, then.

But then the town actually did reopen. The Honea oracle spoke the magic word—Shazam!—but instead of the town going Captain Marvel, it was just Billy Batson again. And Billy Batson burned.

And now that the euphoria is gone, you have to question whether all that fantastic energy actually made sense. Like, PG&E stubbornly set back up every pole, strung anew every wire. Exactly as it had been before the fire. I honor all those men and women, from all over the country, who accomplished that. But now there are power poles marching past block after block after block of dead, denuded, burndom. There's nothing there to bring power to. Will there be? Ever? And, if ever, how long, until ever, is reached? Some 90% of Paradise Irrigation District's ratepayer base is gone, and yet the PID people are out there right now testing and repairing all their water lines, lines, like the power poles, running through a town where 90 percent of it isn't there any more. Miles and miles of pipe, bringing water, to where there is no one. USPS is back, delivering mail, to some 980 structures, houses and businesses. That's what we're down to. That's a hard number. There are now fewer people in Paradise, than there are in Biggs. That's where we are.

And we're scattered. People moving back up here, especially women living alone, they're setting up phone trees, so they can be instantly in touch with others, throughout the scatterdom, if there comes a need. In olden times, in disasters like this one, afterwards jackals would move in, both human and animal, because the land, laid waste, was vulnerable, and the people, being few, they were vulnerable, too. Those olden times, they are these times, here, now. Up here we have coyotes roaming the rubble, and human coyotes too; you look at their mugs, when the police pick them up, and you see that these are people clearly in dire straits, but they shouldn't be preying their dire straits, on ours. I never thought I would be a person who would accept any sort of curfew, but I'm fine with this one. The one running from 8 p.m. through 6 a.m., throughout all of the town. Because the town is burned. Almost all of it, is burned. And the police do not want to have to try to figure out if people skulking in the night through the burndom, or sneaking sally though what's left of the alley, belong here. So we stay inside. And if you're not inside. You don't belong here.

Some women living alone, they don't want to come back. Some people, period, don't want to come back. And for these people, as Lew Welch says: "no blame, no balm." I can sit up here on my porch, and if I look at it right, there is no burned. Or maybe just a little. But what if my house, was like the houses of two women I know, who are pulling out? Their houses stand, but nothing around them does. Their neighbors now: burndom. Waste. One of these women worked years fashioning a magical little garden, an acre around her little tin-roofed house. The fire spared the house, but fired every single plant. Cooked every house, for blocks around. There are a couple houses she can now see from her place, several blocks off; she can see them only because the fire took all the houses in between. It's unnatural. It's creepy. She doesn't want to be there. It was vile, the fire erasing all her neighbors, scorching all her green. She doesn't want to sisyphus that garden again. And the town, she no longer trusts it. She woke up one morning, her neighbor pounding on her door, saying you've got to go now, there's a fire, she over on the far east side, where the fire came in first, she did the endless wait in the jammed traffic, driving, idling, driving, in flames, opened her car door for a woman running out from her house that had just caught ablaze, and by the time she reached Chico, and the sun set on that day, all of her town was burned. A town like that, she can't trust it. Not any more. So, she's moving on. I understand. I wish her well. Out there with the other tens of thousands. In the diaspora.

Others want to come back, but can't. They were renters, say. But there isn't anything here to rent. Or they've bought trailers. But there's nowhere here to hook up. Town and county officials did make it possible for some property owners to plant a trailer on their burned property, if the parcel was large enough, but now those people have to pull up stakes and get out again, because a federal FEMA grant can only be applied to a place that is uninhabitable, and if the town is allowing people to park trailers on their burned ground, that means those people are habiting. So, no money. Or, the trailer-on-the-burned people, they gotta leave. Not knowing anything about it, I think, well geez, maybe they could rewrite the requirements for the grant. But I know it's not that simple. Especially when these are the feds we're talking about. And those people are real busy these days, with this and that. Like quarreling with the cretin. Over his wall to keep out the brownness.

Fact is, this is all unprecedented. We're all having to make it up as we go. No entire town has burned down in this country since the days when there were no cars, no electricity, and people didn't know what is a germ. That's a long stretch. I pray god no other town ever burns down. But if it does, we'll maybe be able to help those people. Because we're the pioneers in this. Back in the maroonment, in the days of euphoria, that's what me and the workers would talk about, that, when it reopened, this would be like a pioneer town. And that this is a pioneer town, that is now Real. But we forgot, me and them, that being a pioneer town, that is not something romantic, like out of a John Wayne movie. It's hard and it's tough and it's backbreaking and it's heartaching. And the pioneers themselves, they never really got to enjoy the fruits, of their pioneering. That was for those who came after. Which, for instance, was us. Until the town burned down. Now we must be pioneers of a different sort. Pioneering what happens when an entire town goes down in flames, in the United States in the early 21st Century. There's no path for this. We have to make it ourselves.

There's a chart going around that explains why we were all so high up here, during the period of the maroonment. It tracks the different stages following a mass disaster. It doesn't seem right, that your life is tracked on some chart, but the reality is that it is. That euphoria we had there, the chart says, that is what is typical in the early "heroic" and "honeymoon" periods. But we're past that now. Now, we're plunging down the bottomless pit of the next stage: "disillusionment." Where nothing will ever get better. Where you've fallen, and you can't get up. Where we all look like wrecks, just as our town is a wreck. Where it seems like it will never end, and all of it is insurmountable. Where you realize you need to buy mustard, because you've lost everything, everything, and it all has to be replaced, even something as simple and basic as mustard, it all has to be replaced, and you have to do it, you have to go out and do it, and you can't do it, it's just too much, it's all too much, and so you go and lay down, and you stare at the ceiling. Then, hours later, you summon all of your powers, rise from the bed, and go into the tiny little trailer kitchen, to make bacon, and you start to do that, but then you realize you can't turn the bacon, because you don't have tongs, even the tongs are gone, you need to buy tongs, I don't want to buy tongs, I shouldn't have to buy tongs, it isn't fair, I shouldn't have to buy tongs, I shouldn't have burned, it isn't fair, the fire shouldn't have burned me, I'm so burned, I don't want to be burned, all I am now, all there is of me, is burned.

I didn't burn, but last night I roared at the scanner in the Save Mart, because it officiously said I'd done something I hadn't, it was being stupid, there wasn't any reason to roar at it, those machines are always stupid, you just deal with it, but I roared at it, and the Save Mart woman hurried over and she said that's alright, these machines aren't very friendly, here I'll help you, she said, and she was friendly, even if the machine wasn't, and she helped me, and she said see now you're fine, but I wasn't fine, I'm not fine, and I burst into tears, because I'm burned.

A lot of it has been bad, the bear was bad, the dog in the bathtub was bad, so many things have been bad, but maybe the saddest thing I've heard was from a woman burned, everything lost, all her friends and family, almost all of them burned, almost every place she's ever known, burned, castaway after on a couch, more than a month, and now in a trailer, but diasporaed, because there's nowhere up here to hook up, and now she's not sure she even wants to hook up here, because every time she comes back up here, it's worse, it's harder, it's more burned, it won't stop being burned, and it's getting creepy even, it's getting spooky, like she doesn't want to be in the trees, because although she knows the fire didn't spread through the trees, it spread through the buildings, trees still can burn, trees did burn, she saw it and felt it and lived it, and these trees still up here, they might burn, why wouldn't they, they burned before, they can burn again, who can trust these trees, in this town, not to burn, and she doesn't want to be in them, when they are burning, she's already burned, she doesn't want to be more burned, she just wants to maybe go somewhere, like on a road trip, maybe to the high mountain country, or to Costa Rica, or even just Susanville, Greenville, I don't know, she says, I don't know where, "I just wanna go somewhere pretty."

Yeah. I think that's what I'm asking of Frank's. When I ask it to not be so burned. I want Frank's to be pretty.

And someday it will be. Even if I don't live to see it. But that really doesn't matter with me now. Even though it does. It can't. Because that's my job now. To make it happen. I'm a pioneer.

And some will come. Be a pioneer. With me.

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can I do/get/bring to you?

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11 users have voted.

Ya got to be a Spirit, cain't be no Ghost. . .

hecate's picture

@Tall Bald and Ugly
can be done, my friend. You can't bring back the town. We're going to have to do that, slowly, over years, over decades, on our own.

Though an interesting thing is going to have to happen. Entities like PID (the water district), and the police department, they are going to have to be bailed out, by other jurisdictions; they no longer have the tax base, to make it on their own. There is, in short, going to have to be socialism. Just as with the library here, that didn't burn, but the books were hurt, smoke-damaged, and libraries all over the country, they contributed money, and now people from the Smithsonian, they are out here, healing the books. And just like the people down in Chico, they opened their hearts, and their wallets, and pressed all sorts of free stuff, on the burned come down from the mountain. People are going to learn. That they can only heal. Only sustain. In each other. That there are no borders. All borders are false. All separateness, is false. Globalism, is all there is. For all is one planet. And we are all here for each other. And for all and every elsewhere. Into the stars above. And into all and every universe. Beyond. Which, in the end, is just: us.

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mimi's picture

@hecate

People are going to learn. That they can only heal. Only sustain. In each other. That there are no borders. All borders are false. All separateness, is false. Globalism, is all there is. For all is one planet. And we are all here for each other. And for all and every elsewhere. Into the stars above. And into all and every universe. Beyond. Which, in the end, is just: us.

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12 users have voted.

@hecate miracle worker, Bro, but I got Some tools and Some skills with them to offer. I remember the p/u being down and could maybe help on that. Eventually there Will be rebuilding and my company is based out of redding, not far fetched to think we might end up in your neighborhood soon enough, we've done work in vina and chico in the past. My thought above was more geared toward your space and time.
You did write;

And some will come. Be a pioneer. With me.

We do what we can. . .

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10 users have voted.

Ya got to be a Spirit, cain't be no Ghost. . .

studentofearth's picture

Non-fire people and fire people helps clarify the different expectations, beautiful turn of phrase. I was 12 when a house fire down the road leveled my Great Aunt & Uncle's house. the dog got them safely to the window then wandered back into the house. Impossible to wash off the smell of smoke at the end of each day after assisting with recovery. Knowing everything around you can disappear overnight changes how one interacts with the world.

Wonder sometimes if as more Americans personally experience disasters will we become less accepting of initiating destruction on people in other nations. Or stop wishing for a violent revolution in this country so we can rebuild. If it happens we wont be comfortably watching it from the sideline enjoying popcorn.

Seems overly dramatic to say my thought are with you, but they have been. Have fond memories of Paradise.

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Still yourself, deep water can absorb many disturbances with minimal reaction.
--When the opening appears release yourself.

hecate's picture

@studentofearth
having once experienced violence, would ever wish violence, on another?

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janis b's picture

in some form, is that pioneering spirit that lives in you and gives life to the possibility of it. I hope your small community finds the support it needs to help it grow in a new and vital way. Maybe if you, Zeke and Hickory; and even Mrs. Gulch keep close enough to imagine the future together, who knows what can happen. Your dream for Frank’s to be pretty again sounds like the same dream Frank has for you and everyone else. What a great place to build something wonderful from.

Thank you hecate, for this amazing portrait of your personal experience, and for rendering so clearly and deeply the life that still lives in Paradise.

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janis b's picture

@janis b

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janis b's picture

@janis b

I should have remembered the lyrics. I wouldn't have posted this if I had. I only remembered Waits "Frank's Wild Years" and copied the title song.

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6 users have voted.

I'm so sorry this happened to you and yours. I don't really have the words to say how much your writing of your and your town's experience has moved me. But, I can't not respond to tell you so in my fumbling way.

I pray god no other town ever burns down. But if it does, we'll maybe be able to help those people. Because we're the pioneers in this.

I fear too that we'll all be pioneers sooner than we think; in different ways for sure, and hopefully not so sudden and catastrophic.
There is a common thread from your work and Arendt's and others I think. Working locally, in our community might be much more important than nationally. I still want medicare for all and I will always want to end the MIC. And still, when hopelessness looks to be the future, and getting up off the mat seems impossible, the smaller local tasks are sometimes manageable. Breath. Get up. Eat. Carry on. Or so they say. Much easier said than done most days I would guess.
In truth, you know I can't truly imagine what you have gone through. I can only hope you and your community the best in the future. Peace.

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13 users have voted.

Maybe you can help your neighbors write something. One day you'll have a library again, and people will be able to read about what used to be, what was lost.

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10 users have voted.
zoebear's picture

You paint a brutal picture, Hecate. As a non-fire person, I wish you could go back to Kansas again, too. Is the idea of starting over somewhere else just not feasible?

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6 users have voted.

If we surrendered to earth's intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Pluto's Republic's picture

...it occurred to me that there were probably people living in Paradise 30,000 years ago, above the boggy heat of the swamp in the valley below. It would take an "eternity" for Chico to harden out of that swamp and become a crossroad for people on their way to somewhere else. It would be another 20,000 years before people began to linger in the jungle that would ultimately grow in the deep rich soil of the former swamp. It was right around that time, when people finally figured out that they could cultivate patches of land and grow a never-ending supply of foods they needed and enjoyed.

Hundreds, even thousands of years would go by for them, and nothing substantial changed. Time was different back in the pre-technology days. Human existence and awareness could be described as a living almanac. A lifetime had a certain pace. It was predictable, inevitable, and accepted. Survival skills were taught and acquired. Life events were embellished with stories and music. History and identity were contained in traditions. Wisdom was passed on at every opportunity.

During some lifetimes, there were natural disasters. Fires would suddenly catch. Walls of hungry flames would burn to the ground everything in its path to the ground — as people and animals ran as fast as they could ahead of it, looking for a place where the fire might break and turn. The survivors would have lost everything that connected them to the past and to the land. Tragedy settled upon them. Their life before the fire was severed completely from their life after the fire.

I pray god no other town ever burns down. But if it does, we'll maybe be able to help those people. Because we're the pioneers in this. Back in the maroonment, in the days of euphoria, that's what me and the workers would talk about, that, when it reopened, this would be like a pioneer town. And that this is a pioneer town, that is now Real. But we forgot, me and them, that being a pioneer town, that is not something romantic, like out of a John Wayne movie. It's hard and it's tough and it's backbreaking and it's heartaching. And the pioneers themselves, they never really got to enjoy the fruits, of their pioneering. That was for those who came after. Which, for instance, was us. Until the town burned down. Now we must be pioneers of a different sort. Pioneering what happens when an entire town goes down in flames, in the United States in the early 21st Century. There's no path for this. We have to make it ourselves.

When it comes to pioneering, those with many years ahead of them might choose differently than those with many years behind them. Much depends, too, on the underlying quality of the country you live it. Not making a committed choice, I think, is risky behavior.

We are all pulling for you. Keep us in the loop.

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7 users have voted.
divineorder's picture

world, less Home Despots. Smile

Your wonderful essay reminded me of stories about Jarrell, the town in Cental Texas that got hit hard by a tornado. Not as bad, not burned, but there were scars.

Jb and I moved from Austin and lived on a bay in a tiny oystering community in the Gulf Coast hurricane zone for the first several years after we retired from teaching. At the time we were away merrily riding local buses, hitchhiking, and camping in our little tent in Namibia when we learned that the little community along with our place we had put so very very much sweat equity into, was in the the national news as being ground zero in the predicted path of Hurricane Rita.

Rita turned at the last minute for reasons known only to her, and in the end and only gave our place a passing slap.

High winds forced water down into a room where we had installed used hardwood floors rescued from my brother's jobsite in Austin. The floor, she warped. So much work had gone into digging it out of the dumpster in Austin, transporting it down to the coast, pulling the nails and installing it. A sweaty, hard, labor of love.
We loved how it looked once it was installed. We did that! Saved that precious oak hardwood from being buried in a landfill.
After reading the emailed news we had continued on to Botswana as planned, taking photos of wildlife and having fun with the locals, not knowing what would greet us when we returned.
At least our place was still standing when we finally got back there. Had about $10,000 damage covered by the required windstorm insurance.

We decided to fix it and sell. No regrets now.

Few years after we sold it another hurricane came along and gave the place a firm kick in the ass. We were told that it floated up the custom septic system we had installed, flooded the underneath the house work area, busted up the water system, and worst of all knocked down the little Gilligann's Island guesthouse we had added down at the water's edge, close to where the alligators and salty river otters played in the brackish water.

We never saw the damage though, did not want to see the damage (!) to our hidden Shangri-la, even though it no longer was ours.

The guy we had sold it to is in the construction business. He must have fixed it. Friend down there sent a FB message recently that the guy has it up for sale now for 3X what he paid us for it. More power to him.

Sad to hear from our friends down there about all the huricane damage. Some houses wiped out with nothing but the slab left. Some rebuilt, others that were rentals or owned by the dirt poor stayed gone. Understandably, many must still have emotional scars.

These days we do our coastal living for 6-8 weeks in various parts of Costa Rica. Still sweating, but without the equity. Smile

All the best to you.

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4 users have voted.

A truth of the nuclear age/climate change: we can no longer have endless war and survive on this planet. Oh sh*t.

gulfgal98's picture

for a number of reasons. At the basic level of suffering a natural disaster, but also for all of those who have suffered a traumatic experience in their lives. The pure trauma has at least two points, the first is the initial trauma which is often horrifying, but still emotionally survivable because you survived. The secondary trauma is what you are writing about here and that is the one that is longer lasting and can be difficult, if not impossible to survive.

Your essay today gets to the heart of the secondary trauma, the more difficult one to overcome. You have so eloquently described it and my heart goes out to you and the other survivors of this horrific fire.

I hope you will continue to write about it here to allow us to better understand what you and other Paradise fire survivors are going through. Life will never be the same again, but I hope your journey will become easier as time passes, and sooner rather than later. Much love from me/us here.

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5 users have voted.

"I don't want to run the empire, I want to bring it down!" ~Dr. Cornel West

"There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare." Sun Tzu

"Propaganda is one hell of a drug." Abby Martin